Skeet had learned that Vietnamese minds dutifully fought against romantic feelings, while their hearts were filled with them -- as were their movies, their music, their poetry and stories. For Shirley to wear an ao dai here was insult, provocation, danger -- and glorious romance.
Bustling all around them as they made their way, appearing and disappearing behind fragile inlaid, carved or painted screens, were young Vietnamese girls in silk trousers and jackets. They carried red lacquer trays. They seemed not to notice Shirley.
But Skeet had glimpsed all the longing looks, the hidden smiles or sneers, the veiled hatred or envy of the love Shirley's parents may have had. From behind averted eyes and bowed heads, tension electrified the room.
They stopped at their table and Shirley waited for him to sit on the dark chair's upholstered seat. Then she lowered herself, eyes down, into the chair beside him.
Nervously, she rearranged the green and purple scarf that softly framed her neck. She let her eyelids flutter down as if she were swooning. It was how she told Skeet she loved him and he looked handsome in the Armani suit or Versace jacket she'd helped him pick out.
"You look magnificent," he said, to bolster her courage in wearing the ao dai. He smiled at her, thinking of the future they would have together, now, of the boy he'd realized he cared for and wanted to adopt.
He saw Aunt Nga emerge from behind a far screen and approach, wearing her white baseball cap. It was her sole concession to America. Beneath it, her grey hair was as invisible as the secret they shared: that Skeet had known Aunt Nga in Vietnam, had been her ticket out when Saigon fell. It was the one thing he knew Shirley wouldn't understand.
As Aunt Nga drew nearer, Skeet saw her look at Shirley, shake her head, then plaster on a smile. "Skeet! Happy see you and lady. You like same thing this time? Some noodle? I got good fish back there for you."
He started to raise his eyebrows, then remembered that this morning Shirley said they reminded her of outstretched condor wings when he did that. She'd said it admiringly, but the image still disturbed him.
"You have a fish for me?" he said. "Well, I'm going to take it, Aunt Nga." He looked at Shirley who nodded. "Make it two fish. Let's see, with some noodles and Hu Tiu, Mi, whatever."
"Okay, Skeet. You got it. Hu Tiu, Mi, whatever." Aunt Nga laughed and glided back toward the kitchen, her baseball cap in sight to the last. She'd soon return with pink-orange bowls, full of food good enough to serve in Saigon.
Skeet thought of the irony of, once a month or so, sitting between the two women who knew him best and who'd never spoken two words to each other.
"You okay?" he said to Shirley, as he always did.
She nodded tranquilly, as if rude eyes weren't making her flush. When they came to Mai's together, Shirley wasn't an assistant curator at the Chatsford Museum of Modern Art, and he wasn't a Ph.D. forensic psychologist, working for the Chatsford Police. They were a black Vietnam veteran, out with his Afro-Amerasian woman. Wordlessly they told the sad story of war and love and Shirley loved the melancholy Viet stories.
"They're really very scandalized, aren't they?" Shirley said and peered toward Mrs. Can Khai Minh's stiff profile as her husband hurriedly paid the bill.
Skeet leaned forward, smiling, "Very scandalized. That's what you wanted, right?"
Shirley fluttered her eyelids and put her salmon-colored napkin in her lap, as he did the same. Skeet felt more joy than he'd allowed himself in a long, long time because this would be a two-act play. One more minute and he'd pull out his mother's garnet ring, get on his knees in front of everyone at Mai's and show them how he loved this bui doi. It would create a sensation Mai's would talk about for months. Shirley would be deeply moved. That's all Skeet cared about.
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